Monday, April 02, 2007

Short reviews

Eric Sykes: If I don't write it, nobody else will

Eric Sykes is one of the UK's most popular comedians, and If I don't write it, nobody else will is his autobiography.

Morecambe and Wise used to claim that the public loved them. Well, love is perhaps putting it a bit strong, but they were certainly held in warm affection; and so is Sykes, by everyone old enough to remember him.

Sykes was born to a working-class family in the heavily industrial north of England in 1923; and the chief virtue of this book is, I think, that it provides a vivid picture of what it was like to grow up in that time and place.

Life was very hard -- let us have no illusions about that. And future historians will, I think, find this unsentimental and unvarnished account of those years to be a valuable resource. Sykes tells us that he was always hungry, and in winter he was always cold.

Equally valuable is Sykes's account of his wartime service with the RAF. But the remainder of the book is less interesting. True, we get a detailed account of Sykes's long and successful career in radio, television, and on stage; and at every turn we learn that the suits in the BBC and other media seldom had a clue how to develop and get the best out of talent; but then we knew that already. Sykes describes the various BBC Heads of Light Entertainment as 'a disappointing bunch of trainee bureaucrats with a limited knowledge of what makes people laugh.'

Whoever edited and proofread this book wasn't up to much, I'm afraid. Among the nonsenses are the following (correct versions in brackets): references to Opal cars (Opel) and Winnie Bagos (Winnebagos); the Isle of Weight (Wight); a registry office (register); and Sylvia Simms (Syms).

We are also told that, in the radio series Educating Archie, the ventriloquist Peter Brough was the ward of his dummy, Archie Andrews. He was actually Archie's guardian (obviously enough), and Archie was Brough's ward.

The account of the the heavyweight fight between Cassius Clay and Henry Cooper in 1963 tells us that the fight went the distance and that Clay (later Muhammad Ali) won on points. He didn't; he won by a technical knockout, the fight being stopped in round five.

No one who isn't fond of Sykes is going to read this book, but there are an awful lot of such readers and they will doubtless find it worthwhile.

Mark Chadbourn: The fairy feller's master-stroke

Mark Chadbourn's 2002 novella, The fairy feller's master-stroke, was published by PS Publishing, a small UK firm which specialises in the fields of SF, fantasy and horror fiction. The company has won several Best Small Press awards.

The fairy feller's master stroke is, I think, the only paperback book I have ever seen which has a picture on the front cover but absolutely no indication of the book's title or author. (For those details you have to look at the spine.) Instead, the front cover is wholly taken up with a reproduction of the painting, later titled The fairy feller's master-stroke, which was commissioned by George Henry Hayden, the chief steward of the Royal Bethlem Hospital.

The artist who painted the picture was Richard Dadd (1817-1886). Dadd was incarcerated in Bethlem (then known as a lunatic asylum) after having murdered his father.

As its title suggests, Dadd's picture featured a host of fairies engaged in various puzzling acts, with one central figure who is shown about to strike a blow with an axe.

Chadbourn's novella tells the story of Danny, a man whose mother was obsessed by Dadd's picture, and who becomes obsessed with it himself. In order to try to discover the picture's true meaning, Danny undertakes a journey to the Middle East, following the itinerary which was undertaken earlier by Dadd.

This novella is not, in my opinion, an easy read. Ideally, it should probably be read at one sitting; and, if not read at one setting, then it should be read twice.

In order to enjoy the book, you need to be interested in three things: fairies, nineteenth-century art, and seriously weird books. I qualify on all three grounds. (In fact I once wrote a fairy story myself, and you can read it free, online.)

Like its subject, this novella is a peculiar piece of work. It is not, in the context of fiction, the equal of Dadd's masterly painting. But then, what is?


Anonymous said...

A most intriguing review of Chadbourne's book. Anyone daring enough to have a cover with no text starts off with a head-start on my list. And a fascinating choice of painting and plot.

Suzan Abrams, email: said...

Oh brought on a smile faster then Sykes with your use of that classic word, nonsenses :-)

Anonymous said...

Greetings GOB. Question for you (not related to your recent posts). Do you happen to know if Words without Borders will start up their Book Group again in May with new selections? That's when they have done so in the past. Gracias, Enchanted Cuban

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